Palo Alto Weekly 35th Annual Short Story Contest
Adult Honorable Mention

Please Remember Ron Nichols

by Jacob Halabe

Author Bio

Jacob Halabe is 18 years old and lives in Los Altos, California. He is a rising freshman at the University of Chicago, where he plans to major in English.

Inspiration

I originally began writing this story as an assignment for my English class. The inspiration for it came from two places: a video I watched about Schrodinger’s cat and a conversation I had with a friend. In the conversation, a friend of mine observed that a lot of people -- especially nowadays -- don’t feel like they exist unless somebody is looking at them. I decided to write a story about a person for whom this is a far more literal dilemma.

Ron Nichols doesn’t exist anymore -- at least not in any you would understand. He’s still there of course, you just can’t see him. He’s a nothing-man, a ghost, a warm wind in an empty room. Sometimes, Ron Nichols is glad that he doesn’t exist. It’s a real bummer, being: you have this body and it never works right, always aching and breaking. Ron has his cabin and his windchimes. When the wind blows just right, it sounds like a whole orchestra is playing. These are the good days. Other times, Ron Nichols sobs and tears at his hair and curls up on the floor. These are the bad days.

We’re getting ahead of ourselves, though.

Ron Nichols was born sometime back before you needed a birth certificate or anything like that to prove you were a person. His mother was a cleaning woman, who worked nights at an insurance firm. Nichols was his mother’s maiden name, his father long gone before he could provide one of his own. The two of them lived in a house outside of town that always smelled like bleach.

There are two groups of people, Ron Nichols’ mother explained to him. There are those who are holy and chosen, who will be the inheritors of the kingdom of God. When these people die, their souls will be shot up to heaven where they will dwell in divine goodness for all eternity. Then there are all the other people, who will be left to burn here on Earth. It is impossible to know which group you are a part of, but you must live a pious life anyway, just in case.

Ron Nichols did not go to school. You won’t find his name in any registry, online or otherwise, nor in any books save for this one. Such is the nature of his predicament. Ron Nichols didn’t play with other kids his own age, either. His mother said other children would hurt him or that talking to them would lead to bad behavior and sinfulness. She liked him to stay at home by himself while she went to work.

Ron used to sneak out to the empty lot behind the park to look at and catch bugs. This one time, he ran into a group of boys there before he could find any beatles.

"Hey, want to play The Game?" the oldest boy asked (there were three of them, hands stuffed in pockets, peering down at Ron Nichols).

"What’s the game?"

"The point of The Game is to try not to think about The Game. If you think about The Game, you lose and there’s a penalty."

Ron Nichols was silent for a moment and then looked up, sheepish, at the boy, "I just thought about The Game."

The oldest boy nodded sagely, as if he’d been expecting this to occur. Shaking his head, he stepped forward and whipped his fist into Ron Nichols’ stomach. The boys left Ron Nichols doubled over, head down among the beer bottles and nettles.

Ron Nichols thinks about this incident constantly. He turns it over in his mind, like a priest contemplating some bit of scripture. What was Ron Nichols’ error? What did he do wrong? Ron Nichols can afford to spend a lot of time thinking. Ron Nichols has all the time in the world now. We’re getting ahead of ourselves, though.

Long before Ron Nichols went down to the lot behind the park, before Ron Nichols was even born, there was a man named Schrodinger. Schrodinger had a lot of funny ideas in his head, like that matter and energy were really the same thing and that it would be okay to have his mistress and his wife live in the same house next to each other (this is true; Ron Nichols read about it in a book). His funniest idea, though, was a new way of killing a cat. Here’s the idea: you take a cat and put it in a box with a canister of poison gas. The box has a switch on it. If you flip the switch, there’s a 50% chance the gas canister opens, killing the cat, and a 50% chance it does nothing. Say you do all of this -- cat, box, gas, switch -- and you open the box to find a dead cat. Pretty simple.

But Schrodinger found something interesting. He figured out that the cat doesn’t actually die when you flip the switch. Until you open that box, it’s both dead and alive, held in a quantum superposition until someone comes and looks at it. The observer’s gaze forces the universe to make up its mind and, presto: dead cat. Perception is the spotlight that creates what it illuminates.

So where does the cat go before the box is opened? Where does anything go when you’re not looking at it? Ron Nichols knows the answer. Ron Nichols has been there, to the almost-place, the gray dimension, the waiting room of the universe.

To the Unremarked.

The Unremarked is less constant than your world. When somebody thinks of something, it pops out of the Unremarked and into your world, until it’s forgotten about, at which point it returns. This can make getting around hard, as somebody in your world will stop thinking about their house, and suddenly what was an empty pathway in the Unremarked will be blocked by some guy’s bungalow.

Everything that has been forgotten about, temporarily or otherwise, resides in the Unremarked. Your keys are in the Unremarked (Well, they’re not anymore, because you just thought of them. Wait until you get distracted, and they’ll come back.)

Ron Nichols casts his mind back and he sees himself, a little boy casting a long shadow on the empty paths of the Unremarked. There’s no sun in the Unremarked (someone’s always thinking about the sun) but plenty of light. All the oceans of lights that nobody thinks about -- from distant stars to bulbs at the back of your fridge -- are here. Past hills of forgotten garbage, past trees that flicker in and out of existence as motorists in our world catch sight of them, young Ron Nichols trots along.

Ron Nichols doesn’t remember the first time he went to the Unremarked. Maybe he’s been going there since he was born. It didn’t happen so frequently when he was little. His mother was usually thinking about him, even when she was at work and he was alone in the house. She would get distracted sometimes, though, and suddenly Ron Nichols would be standing in the Unremarked. There was never any fanfare when Ron Nichols jumped from our dimension to the other. No blast of light, no cosmic ringing accompanied him. He was simply here one moment, there the next.

There wasn’t much to do while Ron Nichols was home alone, so he read. His mother kept him away from most fiction (too suggestive) so he read everything else. Cookbooks, repair manuals, TV guides -- anything he could get his hands on. There were plenty of books in the Unremarked as well: forgotten paperbacks and magazines piled in attics and basements. In fact, it was in the Unremarked that Ron Nichols’ literary tastes fully flourished. To be fair, reading in the Unremarked could be difficult. Someone could recall an old book long forgotten and suddenly the novel Ron Nichols was holding would disappear, leaving him grasping at empty air. But what a selection! Ron Nichols read only the finest of the forgotten: stacks and stacks of mysteries and romances and science fiction stories. Ron Nichols’ favorite things to read were biographies. It was in the Unremarked that Ron Nichols first read the book about Schrodinger as well as books about Napoleon and Roosevelt and Marx. These were people who couldn’t be forgotten, no matter how many copies of their life stories ended up in the Unremarked. Ron Nichols fancied that one day he would write his own life story.

Ron Nichols’ mother passed away while she was at work. The woman from the county office took Ron Nichols to identify the body. He kept on waiting for the soul of his mother to shoot up to heaven, but she just lay there. The woman asked Ron Nichols if he would be okay staying in his own house while the county figured out what to do with him. She said they would send someone by to make sure he was all right. She must have forgotten about him, though, because no one ever showed up and Ron Nichols found himself in the Unremarked far more permanently than before.

Time passes differently in the Unremarked than in your world. To be more specific, it doesn’t pass at all. In the Unremarked, Ron Nichols’ hair does not grow, nor does he become hungry or thirsty or tired. The absence of the sun makes the distinction between day and night laughable. The sky is always a whitish gray haze and any clouds that float through the sky are liable to disappear at any moment. It does not rain or snow in the Unremarked nor does it ever get particularly hot or cold. There are no other living things in the Unremarked (at least none that Ron Nichols has seen); there is nothing to hide from. Despite this, Ron Nichols sought shelter.

Deep in the forests of the Unremarked, surrounded by trees which would make no sound if they fell, lies a cabin. It is a squat, rough-looking thing, thrown together with plywood and determination. Hanging from the eaves of the roof are a chorus of silver wind chimes. Whoever built the cabin forgot about it long ago. While other buildings pop in and out of the Unremarked, the cabin sits stubbornly in place. Ron Nichols started living here after his mother died and hasn’t left since. He didn’t go out in your world, so why should he go out in his? It is here in the cabin that Ron Nichols chooses to make his home. It is here that he reads his books and plays The Game with himself and feels his sanity slowly slipping away. There are good days and there are bad.

The worst part of living in the Unremarked is not the tedium nor the loneliness that churns his stomach and creeps up his throat like bile. The worst part is that every once in a while someone in the real world, a stranger, will vaguely remember seeing Ron Nichols and he will be transported. One moment Ron Nichols will be in his cabin and the next he will be squinting up at the sun of your world. For just a moment he gets to experience what it’s like to truly exist. Then, inevitably, the thought will pass from the stranger’s mind and Ron Nichols will be back in the Unremarked.

Ron Nichols guesses most people would give up in his situation, but not him. Ron Nichols has a plan. The next time Ron Nichols is pulled into your world, he will leave a manuscript behind for someone to find. In it, he will explain who he is and what has happened to him. It is a long shot, but it is the only chance he has.

If you find this manuscript, you must help me. Share my story with as many people as you can, make the world remember the name Ron Nichols. My life is in your hands. Please do not forget me